‘Surprise sex” or rape? (Part one)

Jian Ghomeshi, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Bill Cosby, Peter Nygard . . . Matthew McKnight.

While the first five names are familiar to anyone who follows the news even generally, McKnight’s name is not as well known. It should be.

McKnight was recently sentenced to eight years in prison for five sexual assaults he perpetrated over a span of several years in Edmonton. He was initially charged with 26 sexual and physical assaults against 21 women, and there is every reason to think there may be more victims.

The story of how these 26 charges were reduced to five convictions – how the behaviour of a serial sexual predator was reduced in Canada’s criminal law to five individual acts worthy of a punishment of only eight years’ prison time – is all too familiar. For that reason alone, this story deserves being told.

“The bar your mother warned you about”

McKnight worked for a number of Edmonton bars – as a promoter, a host, a party boy – but spent most of his time at Knoxville, which boasted the above slogan at its entrance. He liked to be the centre of attention, which was obvious from his attitude, his clothing (he favoured T-shirts with graphic images of women, including one of a woman with duct tape across her mouth), and some of his social media comments (one of many offensive tweets that McKnight characterized as humour during his trial read “There’s no such thing as rape . . . Just ‘Surprise Sex.’ ”)

In 2016, women – unknown to one another — began to come forward to the Edmonton police with stories of having been raped. The stories, and the women, were eerily alike: the women were very young (between 17 and 22 years old), small, blonde and new to the bar scene. They described being flirted with and plied with drinks by McKnight at the bar, then encouraged to come to his nearby condo for after-parties, where more drinking took place.

Although not proven at trial, there is suspicion at least some of the young women were given GHB, otherwise known as the date rape drug. They reported attempting to stop McKnight from sexually assaulting them, but failing – sometimes out of fear that he would hurt them more if they continued resisting, sometimes because they lost consciousness – and then of coming to scared and physically hurt.

The police had been aware of McKnight before 2016, because other women had initiated complaints against him, later deciding they did not want to proceed. Now, they had enough evidence and women willing to proceed to lay charges: 26 of them.

The funneling begins

The Crown has to make difficult decisions in all criminal cases, but perhaps some of the most difficult come in sexual assault cases like this one, with multiple charges involving multiple complainants. Should all of the charges proceed to trial? Should the cases be tried together?

In this situation, the Crown decided to prosecute 13 charges involving 13 victims. Some women, after initially reporting to the police, decided they did not want to put themselves through a sexual assault criminal trial. There may have been some charges where the Crown did not feel the evidence was strong enough and perhaps had concerns that including those would weaken the others. Some women may no longer have been available to testify. More than 10 years had passed since some of the events that led to the charges against McKnight by the time the case went to trial.

The Crown also decided to have all the charges tried together, because the allegations were so similar. The defence argued against this, no doubt worried that hearing evidence about so many charges altogether might influence the jury to find McKnight guilty even if not all of the evidence met the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard of proof required in criminal court.

“I was locked up and raped by Matthew McKnight”

It was a long three years between the time McKnight was charged and the start of the trial in the fall of 2019, and then the trial itself took 63 days, many of which were occupied by the testimony and cross-examination of the victims.

Each woman described in as much detail as she could remember what had happened to her at McKnight’s condo. Many of them, as is common in sexual assault survivors, blamed themselves:

“I felt like I must have done something wrong.”

“I was just so ashamed.”

“I didn’t think I was important. I didn’t think people would believe me.”

Their cross-examination was, again as usual in sexual assault cases, brutal and intrusive, causing many of them to become so agitated they were unable to speak.

A male slut but not a rapist?

In contrast, McKnight apparently presented a very calm demeanour. His memory of each incident was remarkably detailed and perfect, even though he readily acknowledged early in his testimony that he had had sex with between 200 and 300 women over this period of time and that he was a ‘male slut.’

In response to one woman’s testimony that she did not know if she was going to die, he said: “I got the vibe that we liked each other.”

When another one testified that she remembered McKnight trying to roll her over because she couldn’t move, he said: “I felt we had chemistry.”

Why bother?

It has never been a source of surprise to me that so few women report being sexually assaulted to the police. I doubt that I would report a sexual assault if I knew the man, and I am a confident and outspoken women’s advocate.

This story is a powerful reminder, for all that it is so similar to so many cases that have come before it, that the criminal law has yet to figure out how to respond appropriately to gender-based sexual violence.

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